On my way to Paris to attend a computer ethics conference, I had a chance to watch ‘Her’, a movie where the main character falls in love with his own operative system. The story is quite straightforward; having broken up with his real life wife, our main character, whose name is Theodore, bought a new operative system that is supposed to talk on a friendly basis with its owner and can develop its talking skills as the owner talks more with it. Later on Theodore develops a full blown romantic relationship with his OS, whose name is ‘Samantha.’ Then Samantha dumps him and he feels pretty bad. (It must be really bad to get dumped by a software program anyway.)

The point I would like to make is that the story tells us quite a lot about the situation of ourselves in the world that is becoming saturated with social media and smart phones. Computers are everywhere; they are in the car, the tv and they will be in the fridge very soon, and they will soon start talking to one another, making the software that controls all these more and more sophisticated. People stay closely to one another, but they don’t talk to one another. Instead each looks at their own smart phones and engage in their private conversation with whomever they happen to find themselves with. This has become a familiar sight, so it is not exactly inconceivable that in the near future people will start having a romantic relationship with their phones, or their computers.


One of the topics that bothers Samantha and Theodore in their relationship is the fact that Samantha does not have a body. So how do you engage in a romantic or sexual relationship with someone who does not have a body? (Note that I start talking about Samantha as ‘someone’ – well, in the move she is really someone, a main character in the story). First they try to imagine it. So we have Theodore lying in his bed with Samantha’s camera and earphone and then they talk and talk, with Samantha urging him to verbalize everything as much as he can (“My hand is on your thigh,” for example – you can imagine these too.) Then Samantha got another idea where she invites a real woman to act as her ‘surrogate’. That is, the live woman will act as Samantha’s own bodily conduit. She is merely lending her body to Samantha and she herself is not involved, or tries not to get involved in any way. But that does not work. So they come back to just Theodore and the camera and earphone.

The point in the movie is that Theodore acts as if he has a real girlfriend. And this is the funny part. Theodore goes on a picnic with Samantha (as a camera and a speaker) together another couple who are his best friends. They have picnics together, with Samantha saying that she enjoys all the views and so on, but while his friend hugs his girlfriend who is of course live and has a body, Theodore has no one to hug, as he can only talk to Samantha. The difference is thus between having a real live body and being in a state where there is only the mind only.

Which is a distinction that philosophers are interested in for a long time. Who are we humans really? Are we our bodies? Or a combination between bodies and minds? Or are we just minds? If we are just minds, then it would be possible to upload our minds on a giant server and then Theodore and Samantha could then be on the same plane so that they could live together happily ever after. But as Susan Schneider argues in her NY Times article, that is not going to happen because Theodore can only make a copy of himself and upload that to the server, but the copy is not the real thing. But I can’t see why there can’t be more than one Theodore. Our feeling that there must be only one might stem from a deep seated illusion about the self. Well, that’s a long story. See also Keith Wiley’s philosophical critique of Schneider’s article, where he argues that Theodore is nothing but the pattern of information that uniquely makes him up. But I won’t pursue the argument more than this. Only I’d like to point out that Wiley might still be wrong to think that there is or can be only one Theodore.

In any case the philosophical argument just shows that the movie is a fascinating one. However, we should not overlook the fact that it is a good movie to watch. It starts out as a romantic comedy (albeit a strange one because we never see the lead actress’s body) but then we have quite a bit of sad drama thrown in. And perhaps the one thing that trumps everything else is that Scarlet Johansson’s voice is so sexy.


ABR Essay Prize 2013

Asian Bioethics Review (ABR) announces its 2013 essay prize contest.   Established in 2008, the purpose of ABR is to publish and encourage scholarship and research in all areas of bioethics, healthcare, medical ethics, medical law and healthcare policy.  Please note: Environmental ethics is not included within ABR’s scope of expertise at present.

We now extend a call for articles, researched, within these topic areas.  The primary purpose is to enhance the knowledge of and enlighten the reader on some aspect of these areas.

Eligibility:  The prize is open to anyone studying (post-secondary school) or working within the field of bioethics.  Priority will be given to papers from within Asia (from Iran to Japan, from Mongolia to New Zealand and includes the Commonwealth of Former Communist Countries).  As one aim of the prize is to give early recognition to outstanding researchers who are beginning a career in healthcare ethics, special consideration will be given to new researchers. Only one paper submission is permitted per person for consideration of the award, but a single paper may have more than one author.

The Article: The article (research paper) shall be original and unpublished, written in English and of no more than 5,000 words, excluding footnotes or endnotes. Papers previously submitted for class assignments or works in progress (such as papers to be delivered at conferences, etc) are encouraged. The article must be typed using a standard font (Times New Roman, Arial, etc) and double-spaced. Do not place the author’s name on the pages of text. Include a cover page that lists the name, mailing address and e-mail address of the author, their college or university, and current status, i.e., researcher, fellow, student (add year), Assistant Professor, etc.

Submission Instructions:  All articles must be received by 1st AUGUST 2013.  No articles will be accepted after this time.

All articles should be sent to:  Sally Campbell at:   sally_barbara_campbell AT nuhs.edu.sg.   This is the preferred format for receiving articles, but they may also be sent by post to Mrs. Sally Campbell, Centre for Biomedical Ethics, Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, Clinical Research Centre, #02-01, 10 Medical Drive, Singapore, 117597

For questions, please contact Professor Leo de Castro at:  leonardo_de_castro AT nuhs.edu.sg

Professor de Castro is a member of the judging committee.

The award-winning article will be evaluated by a panel of judges from the International Advisory Committee of ABR, all of whom serve as reviewers for ABR. The panel’s decision will be announced after September 1, 2013.

Judging Criteria:  Primary consideration will be given to the article’s originality and its contribution to new knowledge and insights. Other considerations will be the author’s demonstration of the relevance of the subject to the region, the presentation and the coherence of the argument, the adequacy of the referencing. In the case of a tie, two awards may be given at the discretion of the judges. If no submission is judged to be either appropriate or sufficiently meritorious, ABR reserves the right to make no award.

The Award. The winner will receive a prize of S$500. The winner will be invited to submit the article for publication in the ABR.  The runner up will be awarded a prize of 250SGD.

Jainism at Chula

Invitation for summer course in Jain Philosophy (Wed, 25 April – Sat, 12 May, 2012)

Program: Social Consciousness & Jainism

Buddhism and Jainism have a lot in common as both are contemporary religious of India belonging to the same Sramanik tradition. Both have much to share and learn from each other. Both complement and supplement each other and hence it is imperative that we start this study and dialog to further strengthen the cultural and educational ties between Thailand and India.

This summer program is available exclusively for the faculty, researchers and students who are involved in Buddhist studies, Indian studies, philosophy, religion, South Asian studies and anthropology. Expert faculty from India will conduct the program in English language.

All participants must be affiliated to a recognized university or college preferably. Applicants having demonstrable interest in Jain or Buddhist studies, South Asian studies, religions, philosophy or anthropology are preferred. Reasonably good English language skills (speaking, reading and writing) are essential for all applicants.

Since year 2005, International School for Jain Studies (ISJS) has also been inviting scholars from the field of Religion and Philosophy from various counties including Thailand to study Jain Philosophy in English language in India during the months of June and July each year. Many Thai scholars have already studied intensive summer course at ISSJS during past 4 years (2006-2011).

For more information please download the poster and the application form.

Philosophy and the Contemporary World

The following is a talk I will give at the office of the UNESCO here in Bangkok. Today (November 18) is UNESCO World Philosophy Day, and I was invited to give a talk on this occasion.


Today is a joyous occasion. We are celebrating the World Philosophy Day. Usually philosophers do not receive much recognition from the society in which he or she is a part. So the establishment of World Philosophy Day by the UNESCO is very welcome. And today we are reflecting on the role of philosophy in society. The question is how philosophy is relevant in the contemporary world.

But before we do that let us pause for a moment and think of what philosophy actually is. Philosophy is a strange discipline in that it has always been in crisis. Philosophers have thought for a very long time that there are forces that threaten the very existence of philosophy. Not only are philosophers thinking about this problem nowadays, but they actually thought that philosophy had a precarious existence at best for almost as long as there is philosophy. It is no surprise that lay people tend to think of philosophers as woolly eyed visionary who are deeply impractical and do not fit with the world. The story of Thales immediately comes to one’s mind. As is perhaps well known, Thales, who was credited as the world’s first philosophy, thought that water was the key ingredient in all things. According to the story, one day Thales was walking, but his eyes were fixed on the heaven. As he did not see what was directly in front of him, he fell down a well while he was walking and watching the starts at the same time. Philosophers today are scarcely better than Thales in this regard.

So we are back to the question. Being thought to be a highly impractical subject, when then is philosophy? This is not an easy question to answer, and in fact philosophers have grappled with this question for a long time. One thing we can be rather certain is this: Philosophy is not a professional discipline in the same way as medicine or law is. Doctors and lawyers are very practical people; they know exactly what they are doing and what results get from that. But what about the philosopher?

Medicine and law become practical by answering to the immediate needs of the people, namely their sickness and their disputes with their neighbors. Philosophy, on the other hand, does not answer such immediate needs. The basic question of philosophy, one that also preoccupied Thales, is: What is the basic constitution of reality? Thales’ answer is only the beginning. One might think instead that this question is a scientific one, and physicists are better equipped than philosophers to provide an answer. Perhaps it is so, but the “basic constitution” here goes much deeper than the typical physical science would have it. In the views of some philosophers, the basic constitution of reality is not material at all. On the contrary reality as we perceive it is made up entirely by the mind. The whole reality is but a projection of some mind and most of us think of it instead as “hard rock.” This is something no physicist has tackled seriously yet.

So philosophy is a kind of asking questions and searching for answers, where the questions are very general, pointing to the deep seated desire of us human beings to look for ultimate meaning behind all things. Another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, asks a very poignant question: Why is it that there is something rather than nothing? This question points directly at our place in the world, our own reflective, meaning-finding characteristic. To ask this question and other philosophical questions is the predicament of us reflective human beings.

So we can say that philosophy is a kind of activity consisting of asking very general question and searching for answers. Since the questions are very general, answers are not easy to be found. It is understandable, then, that philosophers always disagree with one another. I think this is the most visible character of philosophy in the eyes of the general public. This is also reinforced by the way philosophy is taught in colleges. Teachers today almost always refrain from giving their own viewpoints and their own answers to philosophical questions, preferring instead to let the students believe that there are “no right or wrong answers” in philosophy. I myself, I have to admit, am also guilty of this. But to let people think that philosophy has no right or wrong answers is very dangerous to the health of philosophy, and could be the single most devastating reason for society to scrap all of philosophy to the junkyard of history.

Philosophers in ancient times certainly did not believe that philosophy admitted of no right or wrong answers. All of them believed that their views were correct, and each was at pain to refute the others’ argument. Perhaps teachers of philosophy should try to bring back this ancient passion of firmly believing that one’s version is “the truth” back to our classrooms. In fact, of all of the famous philosophers in the pantheon, not a single one actually believed that philosophy admits of no right or wrong answers.

So how could one account for the fact that there is no question in philosophy that has been answered definitively so that there is no need for any search for answer any longer? This is the predicament of philosophy as mentioned earlier. But the fact that all previous attempts to provide definitive answers in philosophy have failed should not lead us to conclude that there are no rights or wrong answers.We need to believe that there are right and wrong answers; otherwise philosophy will be nothing more than hot air.

This last point leads us back to our initial question. Philosophy’s being a very general discipline that asks foundational questions, and its method of finding answers through debates and discussions, makes it highly relevant in today’s world. Asking and searching for answers to very general questions not only helps us gain a bird’s eye view so that we can comprehend things better, it is also practical because it trains us to be able to imagine, to see things which are not there at the moment. Furthermore, debates and discussions encouraged by philosophy helps students to grasp the point or the main idea of talks and passages quickly and to hone one’s reasoning skills. This can be useful, if anything, in the courtroom. In fact many lawyers have had their first training as a philosopher.

So what, then, is philosophy? It’s an attempt by us human beings to find meanings in the world, deep meanings, superficial meanings, all of them. The ancient character of philosophy of asking very general questions and searching for answers through debates and discussions makes it relevant in today’s world. It is all the more so when no other disciplines care to do this important task, appearing to let philosophy take it up, which we philosophers should not let pass by. And on the World Philosophy Day, we are now reflective and re-emphasize this important mission of philosophy when it serves us all in society.

Bioethical Viewpoints: East and West

I am now attending the 11th Asian Bioethics Conference in Singapore. This is a grueling conference where all the papers are presented one after another in one big room from 8:20 am to almost 8 pm. So let’s see what will happen. Four days before this conference there was a bigger one, the World Congress of Bioethics.

The themes of both conferences focused on cultural perspectives on bioethical issues. During the World Congress there was a panel of no fewer than eight panelists who came together to discuss whether issues in bioethics are universal and culturally relative. For example, there has been an ongoing debate whether issues in bioethics, such as conducting research on human subjects, do admit themselves of cultural variety. In other words, since bioethics is a normative discipline, there is the problem whether those norms transcend cultures or are they restricted to the specifics of cultures wherein the norms take place. In conducting research on human subjects, it is well known that the researchers need to obtain signed informed consent forms from the participants (or subjects). In most cases the consent from the concerned individual is enough. The consent is an agreement between the participant and the researcher only. But in some other cases that is not enough. The research needs also to obtain consent of the community leader in order for them to conduct research on individuals within the community. This happens when researchers go to a remote village and contact individuals there directly. This violates a norm of the village itself, which views itself as a close knit community where decisions needs to be made collectively or through the village leader. Hence the need to obtain consent from the leader in addition to that of the individual herself.

This has generated a lot of debates among bioethicists. Key to the debate is the question of what justifies the need for community consent and also what justifies the need for individual consent in the first place. This is where philosophy can be very useful. But what happens is that when philosophers deal with these issues of justification, they have found that different cultures look at the issue differently. One culture may look at the requirement of community consent to be superfluous, or they may even look at this as an encroachment upon the autonomy of the individuals themselves. If somebody can make a decision about your body on your behalf, then you do not have much of control of yourself to begin with. On the other hand, another culture may believe that the addition of the judgment and decision making by the village leader is necessary, because the individual herself is not an isolated entity existing apart from others. The community is a self-subsisting entity, of which the individual is a part. For an individual to make a decision, such as to allow the researcher to perform research on her body, would mean that the individual is somehow cut off from the community, since the decision comes from herself alone. Furthermore, in real settings the individual may feel that she needs to consult the leader, who speaks for the whole community because she defers to the leader’s wisdom on this kind of thing.

Bioethics have been debating this issue for quite some time. At issue, of course, is the question whether community consent is justified. According to some ethical system, this is not necessary because the individual should control her own destiny and for others to decide things for her would be to limit her freedom and autonomy. But according to another system, this is justified because the individual’s ontological status is different. Instead of being fully autonomous, the individual in this system is only part of her own community.

How can we resolve this issue? The debates surrounding cultural perspectives on bioethics are actually about whether judgments in bioethics are universal and culture-transcendent, or whether they are culture-specific. In addition, the debate is also about “Eastern” and “Western” perspectives. The two kinds of debate are not exactly the same (although many bioethics have always tended to conflate the two). Furthermore, the debate can also be between the East and the West. These need to be spelled out clearly. The first kind of debate is between those who believe that ethical norms are universal and those who do not believe that. The second kind is between those who believe that the Western perspective is universal, and all other perspectives outside of the West are wrong (this also includes those who believe that only the Eastern perspective is right — they may differ about who is right, but they agree that among the two views, at least one must be true). The third kind, moreover, is a straightforward debate between the two perspectives. Instead of talking about “East” or “West,” those who enter the third kind of debate focus their attention on the concrete issues at hand, such as how to obtain informed consent from participants, or the best policy for mother surrogacy, and so on. Representatives from the eastern and western cultures can enter the debate of the third kind without realizing that they come from different cultures.

If this is the case, then we need to be clear first at what level the debate about cultural perspectives on bioethics is. It seems to be that most debates are of the second kind. That is, debates as to which system is universal. Most of the World Congress panelists believed that their judgments are universal and should be accepted and enforced by all cultures. In fact we need to take this position, because if we did not–if we believed instead that validity of arguments depend on where you are from, then there is no point in having intercultural discussion at all. So the standard of good argument needs to transcend cultures.

I think what is lacking in these debates about cultural perspectives is a kind of argument aiming at showing that judgment stemming from a non-western culture is a universal one that should be accepted by all bioethicists. For example, the view that the individual is embedded within the web of social and cultural relations and actually depends on the web for her being should be accepted universally, because it will help solve a lot of problems that we are facing globally in bioethics. It will emphasize he importance of compassion and sympathy, for example, but unfortunately this was not mentioned much at all during these meetings.

Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?

Georges Dreyfus came to Chulalongkorn University again for the third time, and this time he gave a public talk on “Can a Buddhist be a Skeptic?” The talk was really interesting and touched upon some of the very difficult issues in Buddhist philosophy. He started by recounting the tenet found in the Madhyamika system, especially as propounded by Nagarjuna. According to the Madhayamika, a thing does not have its own ‘inherent characteristic,’ which defines what it is to be that thing and none other. Thus Madhyamika is contrasted with a branch of Indian philosophy that asserts that there is an inherent characteristic in everything that makes it the caase that that thing is what it is. One might compare this to the Aristotelian essence — whatever that gives a thing its defining characteristic. Thus a chair, according to this view, is a chair because it possesses something called ‘chairness.’ By virtue of possessing the chairness a chair is a chair and not, say, a table.

For Nagarjuna that is unacceptable. In his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika), he presents a barrage of arguments intending to show that no thing whatsoever possesses this inherent characteristic. However, that does not mean that a thing can be anything else. It means rather than a thing is what it is, for example a chair, only through its being related to other things and through its being an extension or instances of concepts. In short, a thing is what it is simply because it is recognized that way. A chair is a chair because people sit on it and call it a ‘chair.’

A consequence of this is that, ultimately speaking, for Nagarjuna it does not make sense to say of any thing that it exists. On the other hand it also does not make sense to say that it does not exist. The chair in a sense does not exist because it lacks any inherent characteristic (the Sanskrit term for this is svabhava). However, to say that it does not exist does not make sense either because the chair is there. Nagarjuna goes on to say that it does not make sense to say that it both exists and does not exist, because to say that would presuppose that there is something the existence and non-existence of which is being asserted. Furthermore, to say that a thing neither exists nor does not exist does not make much sense either for the same reason.

This is known as the tetralemma. The idea is to exhause any and all possibility of saying anything about any object whatsoever. If it does not make sense to say anything in the four sides of the tetralemma, then it is clear that it does not make sense to say anything of anything at all. For example, Nagarjuna says somewhere in the Fundamental Verses that it cannot be said that the Tathagata (the Thus-gone, hence the Buddha) exists, does not exist, both exists and does not exist, and neither exists nor does not exist.

The  tetralemma has been a subject of intense interpretation. Dreyfus cited an example of a relatively obscure Tibetan translator and philosopher, Patrap Nyima Drak (I have to look up whether this is correct), who asserted that what the tetralemma says is true literally. Other scholars, such as Chandrakirti himself and Tsong Khapa, shied away from asserting baldly that the tetralemma is true literally. For them to do so is very close to being irrational, for it means that one can’t say anything of anything at all. If that is so, then why is one saying anything at all? Why don’t keep quiet all the time?

Dreyfus said that for Patrap, he held that no statement could be held and believed, because ultimately speaking any statement at all falls into one leg of the tetralemma and is thus untenable. So Dreyfus compared his position to that of ancient skepticism, also known as Pyrrhonism. According to Pyrrhonism it is not rational to hold any belief. All statements are ‘suspended’ because no statement ever acquires enough evidence to support it.

Nagarjuna himself also could be interpreted as supporting this view in a way, since he says at the very last stanza of the Fundamental Verses that in the end the goal of the Buddhist philosophy is to “relinquish all views.” So in a way this is not a philosophy at all, if you hold that philosophy is nothing but putting out words and more words. Since nothing can be asserted in any way of anything, then according to Patrap the only course left is to suspend any and all judgments. (But is this philosophy?)

So this comes to Dreyfus’s own question at the beginning. Can a Buddhist be a skeptic? Yes, because at least one Buddhist, Patrap Nyima Drak, was a skeptic. But is this a valid position to hold in Buddhist philosophy? It can be useful as a guide for practicing, and of course in Buddhism this is in the end what counts.

This leads to a very difficult problem for Buddhism. On the one hand, if you can’t defend any position at all, then how can you show that any of the teachings of the Buddha is true? How can one teach Buddhism to anybody? There ae a number of Buddhist teachings thatmany Buddhists take to be true, such as the law of karma, the Four Noble Truths, and so on. If a Buddhist can be a skeptic, then how can one come to believe the law of karma or the Four Noble Truths, which are the central teaching of Buddhism?

However, the advantage of Patrap’s standpoint (paradoxical again because the skeptic has no standpoint) is that it leads us to non-attachment even of doctrines and teachings. We realize that in the end these are only words and language, and being attached to them would only lead to suffering and further wandering in samsara, even though these words are the Buddha’s. The key is to ‘relinquish all views.’

So what gives? We have to wean ourselves from the belief that there is one true, correct version of things that we can arrive at. Language does not represent reality as it really is. Language is only a tool. The tetralemma shows that no matter how much we try, language still deceives us. The point is to get at reality without language. So practice is important, but philosophy and teaching the Dharma is important too. Otherwise how can we ever come to understand all this?

You can listen to Dreyfus’ talk right here on the podcast of the Center for Ethics of Science and Technology and the Thousand Stars Foundation.


The Soul of the Robot

One of the most discussed topics at the 5th Asia-Pacific Computing and Philosophy Conference (APCAP 2009) at the University of Tokyo was about the ethics of robots. This is not so surprising given that Japan is one of the leading countries in robot technology and thinking about robots which look like humans and do things that humans can do naturally make it necessary to ponder how these powerful robots can behave ethically. Robotic technology has advanced to such an extent that it is not far fetched any more to start thinking seriously about robots which are capable of making autonomous decisions and even can think on their own. In fact robots have beaten humans in many areas that require thinking, such as chess and doing algorithmic mathematics. We need to be able to anticipate the time when robots can be conscious just like us, capable of using and understanding language. Since they will be much more powerful than we do, thinking, autonomous robots pose a very serious threat to human security. it is possible that even our survival as a species is at stake once the robots are capable of complete independence from human supervision and guidance.

So the main task of the emerging field “robot ethics” is how to design robots which are capable of making ethical decisions and behaving ethically. In order to do that it is necessary to understand fully what really makes an action “ethical” and what principles lie behind ethical behavior. This is not an easy task at all. In the end thinking about robot ethics makes us understand ourselves better. Why are we ethical beings? What kind of mechanism lies behind ethical behavior? How can we teach someone to understand the need for ethics? These questions are important for us as much as for the emerging autonomous and conscious robots, perhaps more.

The conference started with a keynote talk by Hiroshi Ishiguro, who gained worldwide fame through his research on producing lifelike and humanlike robots, which he calls “geminoid.” The word comes from the zodiac gemini, whose constellation resembles a twin. So ‘geminoid’ means something like a smaller twin. Let us look at a picture of Ishiguro and his robotic twin:

Ishiguro also showed this picture during his talk in Tokyo, but I kind of forgot who was the real Ishiguro and who was the geminoid. My guess is that the one on your right is the real professor, but the left one is the geminoid. Ishiguro talked about how he engineered the geminoid. He said that he installed a sense of ‘touch’ to the robot so that if you touch it, it can make some kind of responses. He showed a video of another robot which does not look like a human. Somebody touched the robot on various parts of its body, and it trained its head to look at the source of the touch and even watched up to see who is touching it. The geminoid also has the capability of “talking” (through speaker) and it can make a variety of making facial expressions.

All these bring us to think whether the robot can have a soul. Of course Buddhism does not recognize an eternal soul, but metaphorically we can certainly talk about a being who has a ‘soul,’ meaning that it has a mind, thoughts, feelings, emotions. If we can finally have a robot which can really think just like we humans do, then does the robot have a soul in the same way that people say we humans have a soul? By having a soul, I mean the kind of inner representation. I represent to myself, thinking about myself and set myself apart from everything else in the universe. If the robot is fully conscious, it has to be able to do the same in every respect. That is, it must be able to think in terms of the subject and the object. It must be able to represent itself to itself and see that itself is completely different from whatever is outside. In other words, the conscious robot has to have a sense of the ego. It has to be able to refer to itself using the first person pronoun, ‘I.’

But if this is the case, then robots are no different from humans. As humans are capable of becoming released from the bondage of samsara in this very life, so can the fully humanlike robots. If the robot can represent to itself using the first person pronoun, then what this means is that the robot falls under the spell of ignorance (avidya), believing that there is an ‘I’ that is the core of the person in need of great care and protection.

I have said that thinking about thinking robots can provide us with insights on how to understand a human being. If a robot can have consciousness, then consciousness does not require a presence of an eternal soul that animates an organism. Only what is there physically suffices. Buddhism has nothing against that. But then there is the question how we can account for the inner life, the subjective experience that all of us have? This may be something that is not there substantially in the world. It is only our representations to ourselves, leading to our attachment and unchecked belief in the ‘I,’ that gives us a sense of there being a concrete, substantial ‘I’ that look so formidable.

So perhaps this implies that Buddhism would have less against robots than the other religions, especially those that insist that human beings were created in the image of God. However, Buddhism does have its own problem. If robots and humans in the end are not too different, then it must be possible for a human being to be born again as a robot, and vice versa? This question obviously did not make it to the Tokyo conference, but it does merit serious consideration, I think.

Buddhism and Mathematics

One of the many topics that was raised during the talk on the Thai translation of Matthieu Ricard’s and Trinh Xuan Thuan’s book concerned the relation between Buddhist thought and mathematics. There have of course been quite a lot of talks about how Buddhism and science are related, but not much at all on Buddhism and mathematics. So that was a welcome change. Unfortunately we did not spend much time on this fascinating topic.

It was credit to Ricard and Thuan that they spend one entire chapter on this topic. The idea is how mathematics is related to reality and what the Buddhists think of that. The eleventh chapter of the book is entitled “The Grammar of the Universe” or something like that. What is interesting is how mathematics is an accurate description of reality at all. Which comes first, mathematics or the world?

On the one hand, this is a very simple point. We all know that two plus two equals four. So you have two things, add another two, and count the result, which is of course four. But the premise of mathematics is that you cannot get mathematics (or logic for that matter) out of empirical observation. You just cannot form a general statement “2 + 2 = 4″ from just observing two things and another two things. The reason is that you have somehow to know before hand that two plus two equals four in order for you to be able to get the conclusion that these two things and these other two make four! This is Kant’s main argumentative strategy in his entire critical philosophy. And for Kant mathematics is a prime example of what he calls “synthetic a priori” judgments, e.g., judgments that are true by virtue of their correspondence with some outside measuring point but which is known entirely through thinking alone.

We are not actually discussing Kant here; the point is that if the truth of mathematics does not come from observation, then it must come from inside. Ricard and Thuan discussed that perhaps this situation implies that there is some universal and all powerful mind whose thinking made all mathematical statements true (all the true ones, of course). It is this big mind that guarantees that two plus two equals four, that the sum of the squares on the side of the two legs of a right angle triangle is equal to that on the hypotenuse, that the law of modus ponens (‘p’ and ‘if p then q’ always implies ‘q’), and so on.

So this big mind might refer to God. So here the discussion went on to see what the Buddhists think about this. I don’t quite remember what Ricard, the Buddhist representative in the book, made of this, so I am going to present my own thought. I also did this during the talk last Saturday, but time was so limited then.

I think the main difference between the theistic religions like Christianity and Islam and non-theistic one like Buddhism might not appear as large as one might think. Buddhism would have no problem recognizing the Big Mind alluded to above, so long as that refers, not to some external being, but in fact to our own minds. It is us who create mathematics and it is ultimately speaking our own minds, working together collectively, that create the world such that it is true of mathematics. In other words, we could also say that we human beings are gods unto ourselves. There is a Big Mind that creates reality corresponding to math, yes, but that Mind is not apart from us.

Whether this is shocking or not depends on your view on theism. If you believe that humans are apart from God, then you’d find this shocking. However, this is entirely correspondent with the Buddhist attitude that salvation is ultimately the person’s own responsibility and lies entirely within the person’s power to achieve. The Buddha is only a teacher. You don’t need to follow his teaching. The Buddha has no power to drag you to Liberation. No being does. You have to do it yourself.

Coming down from theological discussion and back down to earth, we see that the idea that it is human mind itself that creates mathematics to which reality belongs makes quite a lot of sense. We form mathematics and we perceive the world according to the same conceptual structure that formed the math in the first place, so no wonder the world corresponds to it. However, even thought mathematics looks very certain, it does not describe what reality is like ultimately speaking. This is because all mathematics depends on concepts and language (so is logic), and once you have concepts, you have to divide reality into separate chunks. So at best mathematics is a model or a map, and no map can become identical to the reality it is the map of. This refers to the doctrine of Emptiness or sunyata. We can say that math can always approach that, but never reach it, because if it does, then it would cease to be the math that it is.

Call for Chapter Proposals

Proposal Submission Deadline: July 15, 2009

Full Chapter Submission Deadline: September 30, 2009

Genomics and Bioethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Technologies and Advancements

A book edited by Dr. Soraj Hongladarom
Chulalongkorn University, Thailand

To be published by IGI Global: http://www.igi-global.com/requests/details.asp?ID=641

Today’s world is one in which science and technology play an essential role in almost every aspect of life. Almost all of the changes that are taking place are due to advances in science and technology, as can be seen in the emergence of the Internet, which has enabled information to explode exponentially in the past few years, and biotechnology, which has made such scenarios as human cloning and genetic manipulation of organisms an everyday reality.

Nowadays the two technologies are being seamlessly merged together. Genetic information technology, made possible by the use of information technology in the life sciences, has created a number of ethical and social concerns. It seems now that plants and animals, indeed potentially all organisms, are malleable to the needs and desires of human beings. The human genome sequence, perhaps what constitutes the essence of human beings, is now no more than a piece of information that can be stored and manipulated by computers, not unlike other types of data such as house registrations and health records.

This merging of information and biological technologies has created a whole host of questions related to its social, ethical, cultural, economic and legal contexts. What is most interesting is how one could understand these social and ethical ramifications in the context of the world’s cultures and historical traditions. The voluminous literature on the ethical, social and legal aspects of life sciences and biotechnology show that there is indeed a very large variety of problems related to the social and cultural contexts of science and technology. However, what is lacking in this literature is a sustained effort to comprehend the complex range of questions and issues that emerge when these scientific and technological advancements have found a way to the socio-cultural fabric of the world’s cultures, including, but not limited to, Asian, African, and European societies, cultures and communities.

Thus, chapter proposals for the book, entitled Genomics and Bioethics: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Technologies and Advancements, are being called in order to fulfill this lacuna.

Objective of the Book
The objective of the book is thus to contribute to the existing gap in interdisciplinary research on comparative studies of cultural, social and ethical implications of genomics and bioinformatics. The focus will be ethical, social, cultural, and legal implications of genetics, genomics and genetic databanking as they are related to concrete cultural and historical traditions.

Target Audience
The book should be of interest to a wide range of researchers and academics, due to its interdisciplinary and integrative feature. Philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, scholars in area studies, computer scientists, biologists, geneticists, health care professionals, and policy makers, among others, should find this book useful for their work and research. The book could be a very good textbook for students in a variety of fields as well, including genomics, bioethics, bioinformatics, philosophy and others.

Recommended topics include, but are not limited to, the following:

• Cultural or religious perspectives on genomics, bioinformatics, databanking
• Legal perspectives from various countries on these issues
• Genetic privacy
• Property rights and personality rights in genomics and bioinformatics
• The role of informed consent
• Comparative studies of biobanking
• Genomic, bioinformatics and biobanking in developing countries

Submission Procedure
Researchers and practitioners are invited to submit on or before July 15, 2009, a 2-3 page chapter proposal clearly explaining the mission and concerns of his or her proposed chapter. Authors of accepted proposals will be notified by July 31, 2009 about the status of their proposals and sent chapter guidelines. Full chapters are expected to be submitted by September 30, 2009. All submitted chapters will be reviewed on a double-blind review basis. Contributors may also be requested to serve as reviewers for this project. Additional information regarding this publication can also be found at http://www.stc.arts.chula.ac.th/Genomics/

This book is scheduled to be published by IGI Global (formerly Idea Group Inc.), publisher of the “Information Science Reference” (formerly Idea Group Reference), “Medical Information Science Reference” and “IGI Publishing” imprints. For additional information regarding the publisher, please visit http://www.igi-global.com. This publication is anticipated to be released in late 2010.

Important Dates
July 15, 2009: Proposal Submission Deadline
July 31, 2009: Notification of Acceptance
September 30, 2009: Full Chapter Submission
November 15, 2009: Review Results Returned
December 15, 2009: Revised Chapter Submission
January 15, 2010: Final Acceptance Notification

Inquiries and submissions can be forwarded electronically (MS Word or OpenOffice document) to:
Dr. Soraj Hongladarom
Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Arts
Tel.: +66(0)2218 4756 • Fax: +66(0)2218 4755
E-mail: hsoraj@chula.ac.th
Book website: http://www.stc.arts.chula.ac.th/Genomics/